|A Year of Indiana History - 2016|
James Whitcomb Riley (October 7, 1849 – July 22, 1916)
The third of six children born to Reuben Andrew and Elizabeth Marine Riley, Riley received his name from Indiana Governor James Whitcomb, with whom his father was a good friend. A native of Greenfield, Indiana, James' education was spotty. He never learned mathematics, geography, or science well and had a rudimentary understanding of grammar. His teacher, impressed with his poetry, encouraged him to write poetry. With few toys to amuse them, the children of his area frequently held plays in the back of a grocery store using scripts he wrote. He never learned to read music, but learned to play both the guitar and the violin.
To earn money, Riley began work as a sign painter. He composed much of his early poetry composing slogans for the signs he painted. By 1875, he began submitting poems and letters to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, hoping for an endorsement. He eventually got one, and used it to try to get work writing poetry. He also sent poetry to several newspapers and had many published in the Indianapolis Journal and others. He finally found work with the Indianapolis Journal in 1879. He supplemented this work with reading tours around Indiana. By 1882 had gained a following. In 1884, he published The Boss Girl, A Christmas Story and Other Sketches, which did well in Indiana but poorly elsewhere.
After a bout with illness and a problem with alcohol addiction, Riley performed in New York's Chickering Hall in 1888. His performance proved a huge success and the resulting publicity finally awakened his career. Riley wrote several more books and published many poems. His poems were popular with children, earning him the sobriquet "Children's Poet," as well as the "Hoosier Poet," because of the Hoosier dialect he adopted for his poetry and performances. Riley died of a stroke. At his wake in the Indiana Capitol Building 35,000 people filed past his casket.
James Whitcomb Riley Home
The James Whitcomb Riley Home is the house that Poet James Whitcomb Riley spent the last 23 years of his life. The home is at the heart of Lockerbie Square and contains many of Riley’s most treasured possessions. His desk, cane and hat are included among the artifacts on display.
The home was built in 1872 and it is the only late Victorian home preserved in the United States. Many of the furnishings, carpets, wall coverings and décor date back over 125 years. It has been preserved exactly the way the final occupants left it when Mr. Riley died in 1916.
The home is now a museum, open for the public to visit and enjoy.
James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home and Visitor Center
528 Lockerbie Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202
Exerpted from the author’s book:
Exploring Indiana's Historic Sites, Markers & Museums – East Central Edition
A Year of Indiana History - 2016
© Paul Wonning